Brisbane Postpones Decision on Baylands Project

Diego Aguilar Canabal
Friday, July 29, 2016

Over 4,000 residential units hang in the balance after the Brisbane Planning Commission voted last night to continue their ruling on the controversial Brisbane Baylands project until their next meeting on August 26th. The 4,000-person town 7 miles south of San Francisco may see its residential capacity triple from its current 2,000 if the 4,434-unit project is approved. The site is also walking distance from the Bayshore Caltrain station, the last station outside of the San Francisco County line.

Brisbane City Hall

Though the residential portion of the project would not be equivalent to the 6.5 million square feet of office space, supporters said it was a necessary addition to the Bay Area’s scarce high-demand housing supply. While there were some residents objecting to increased population density outright, the local planning commission’s concerns emphasized toxic waste from the former landfill on the site.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is also considering the site a location for a future maintenance facility for the planned train project, and it could render the whole debate moot by seizing the land through eminent domain.

Southern Pacific Roundhouse

United Paragon Corporation, the owner of the 684-acre former industrial site, insists that the residential component is essential to make toxic cleanup financially feasible. They estimate that site improvements, which includes remediation, open space and the reclaimed water facility, would cost upwards of $1 billion.

UPC’s plans include first-floor retail, solar panels, and hiking trails, with the historic Southern Pacific roundhouse renovated as iconography for a new public park. Yet many neighbors were not convinced that the project would bring a net benefit to their livelihoods.

“It is not the money and not the regulations that will lead to the cleanup of the Baylands,” one irate neighbor speculated. “Allow me to move here from fact to rumor: what possible reason does this leave us with?” According to her, it was merely a ploy by UPC and their investors to increase the land’s value before the High Speed Rail Authority took it by eminent domain. “You are being used as a tool,” she said of the speakers who had been invited by UPC supporters.

“Sustainable development means more housing,” another speaker countered. “We can’t just keep building jobs and assume other cities will build the housing.” Another speaker representing the Greenbelt Alliance, an anti-sprawl nonprofit group, provided the group’s endorsement of the project, on several conditions: that it maintain a proper jobs-housing balance, and that its component of Below Market Rate units be reserved primarily for Low- and Very Low-Income households. (These income groups are defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; statewide assessments can be found here.)

Previously, program director Matt Vander Sluis had described the commission as “living in oblivion” over their reluctance to approve the proposal.

Bayshore Caltrain station (courtesy: Leora Tanjuatco)

The project also received support from regional construction unions, who see the development as an opportunity to provide housing for builders close to other projects.

Some residents objected to what they viewed as a regional encroachment on their local enclave: “Housing in this development would only benefit those who neither live in nor care about Brisbane,” one speaker lamented.

This prompted supporters of the project to question whether or not the project need to be within local purview at all. “I understand doubling your population would be very different for this town, while others would be happy to live in a bigger city,” one speaker noted. “I think all of these problems would be solved if San Francisco were to annex the residential portion of the Brisbane Baylands.”

Supporters came from as far as Oakland and Berkeley, as well as the local Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County.

Their arguments may have held some sway, at least for one man. The longterm resident, who identified himself as Raymond, emphasized his love for the local community, and initial suspicion at seeing so many outsiders come to advocate for new development. “As I reflect here…we also need to share,” he remarked.

The debate ultimately overwhelmed the five-person commission. “If we’re really going to consider what’s been said and take everything to heart…we’re going to need more time,” commission chair TuongVan Do declared.

The Planning Commission will revisit the project at a special session on August 25th.